It’s all still on — Boca Juniors can still dream of winning the Copa Libertadores to honour the memory of Diego Maradona, and of meeting Buenos Aires rivals River Plate in the final for the second time in three years. And there is now the certainty of a Pele vs. Maradona-themed semifinal over two legs in January after Boca set up a meeting with Santos of Brazil after beating compatriots Racing 2-1 on aggregate.
Boca went down 1-0 in last week’s first leg, a second consecutive single-goal defeat, a second consecutive dismal display. Coach Miguel Angel Russo had a big call to make, and can feel happy that he got it right. Centre-forward Franco Soldano has many critics, hardly a surprise given his recent record — a league goal at the weekend was his first in 16 matches. Soldano clearly has his limitations, and the knives were being sharpened when he wasted a clear chance right at the start of the game. Put clear though, he lacked the guile to beat goalkeeper Gabriel Arias.
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But the move highlighted why Soldano was the right choice for this game. Racing play with a back three, with the aim of staying compact as high up the field as possible. For the early chance, Soldano was able to run behind their high defensive line. This scared Racing into defending deeper. The mobility of Soldano opened up space for Carlos Tevez to circulate, and once Racing had been forced back, Boca were able to find the room down the flanks to turn the screw.
Racing coach Sebastian Beccacece looks for strong performances from his wing-backs, Fabricio Dominguez and Eugenio Mena — and there was a glimpse of what would have been a vital away goal in the first half when the thrust of Dominguez set up a chance for Lorenzo Melgarejo, who dragged his shot wide. The obvious risk is that the opposition can get into the space behind the wing-backs — and Boca did this time and time again. Racing were unable to cope with Boca’s full-back/winger combinations of Leo Jara and Eduardo Salvio down the right and Frank Fabra and Sebastian Villa down the left.
Arias was outstanding in the last round’s surprise triumph against reigning champions Flamengo of Brazil. He was even better against Boca, pulling off a string of wonderful saves. But he could do nothing to prevent a goal that had everything to do with Boca’s domination down the flanks. Mena had been drawn infield, and was not tight enough to prevent Jara sending in a deep cross from the Boca right. Dominguez was beaten in the air by Villa, and the ball fell for Salvio to guide a header into the top corner.
A proactive coach, Beccacece made two changes at the interval, hoping that his team might find enough attacking rhythm to score an away goal. But it may well be the case that he showed an excess of loyalty to Lisandro Lopez, his captain and veteran centre-forward. Lopez has not found the target since October of last year. The statistic is slightly cruel because included in that time is Argentina’s summer break and the long pause for the coronavirus pandemic. Even so, it would seem to indicate that time has robbed him of much of his threat to the goal. He would have been an obvious candidate to leave the field in a team making two attacking substitutions. But Beccacece kept faith with him, taking off the talented Mathias Rojas and using Lopez in a deeper midfield role.
It all went wrong on the hour. Boca moved the ball skilfully from left to right, Salvio went for a dribble on the outside and Lopez lunged in with a clumsy challenge that gave away a clear penalty. Villa was a surprise choice to step up to the spot. Arias had been getting the better of him all night, and dived the right way — but not quite far enough, and Boca were ahead on aggregate.
Lopez was sent back up front, with interesting teenager Carlos Alvarez coming on in midfield. It was Alvarez who came closest to a Racing goal, hitting a shot that Boca goalkeeper Esteban Andrada had to watch closely to push round on the bounce. But with just three goals conceded, Boca can boast the best defensive record in the competition, and they played out the last half-hour with little alarm.
Boca Juniors, then, are through to their third consecutive Libertadores semifinal and their fourth in five years. The only thing they will consider good enough is their first title since 2007, preferably achieved against River Plate to avenge the defeat they suffered at the hands of their biggest rivals in the 2018 final. First, though, there is the intriguing matter of a semifinal pitting Santos against Boca Juniors, over which the shadow of South America’s two greatest players is sure to loom large.